OK, you can stop laughing now. No, really, stop. I wasn't exploring the grassy fields around Bradley International Airport. Nor was I in the sliver of wilderness along the Connecticut River known as the Windsor Locks Canal Trail. This was a bona fide wilderness — a place where huge white pines grow undisturbed, a clear stream appears out of nowhere and flows through mossy ravines, and ferns grow waist-high and gently sway in the wind.
However, you don't get that wilderness feeling right away when you drive down the entrance road and into what looks like a prison courtyard. Six-foot chain-link fences topped with three rows of barbed wire still line the boundaries. "No Trespassing" signs remain secured in trees with rusty nails. You see this a lot on preserved water company land. Once the land is preserved, those signs need to come down.
But once you enter the final gate and walk down the trail sandwiched between a line of white pines and a babbling Waterworks Brook, the wilderness beckons. The pines provide a neat juxtaposition, with 75-year-old specimens growing in the brook valley and smaller — perhaps great-grandchildren — stretching under them for the bit of sunlight that sneaks through.
The main trail goes through the heart of the preserve with the brook acting as its shadow, flowing from a series of small ponds and even right out of springs in the hillsides. Spend some time exploring the banks of the brook and walking through the ferns. Or look for a fallen log and cross the stream.
The trail eventually leaves the valley and enters an oak forest. The dense canopy keeps the vegetation along the forest floor low, allowing visitors to really scan the surrounding forest. Although there are no maps or blazes, the trails are easy to follow. And, totally surrounded by development, the chances of getting lost are slim.
All the trails within Waterworks are easy and relatively flat. And just as the paths seem ready to re-emerge into civilization, the trail turns back into the forest. Trails split off and go past ponds and ravines. One trail passes a rusted appliance graveyard and, yes, there is even an old kitchen sink. Another trail reaches the outskirts of a fallow tobacco field, with its empty shade netting blowing in the breeze.
So what would have happened to this slice of wilderness if the town didn't save it? Drive up to the Oak Ridge condominium complex just to the west of the park for one possible ending. Here you will see the oaks being clear-cut off the ridge for the next phase of condos. And be thankful the town had the foresight to see the trees through the wilderness of Waterworks Brook Park.
Interstate 91 north to exit 39. Follow Archer Road several miles and take a left on S. Center Street. The entrance to the park is on the left at 327 S. Center St. Leashed dogs are welcome. Peter Marteka can be reached at 860-647-5365, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.